Just home on the heels of a restful trip to Florida with the family, including visiting a special place in the north-central part of the Sunshine State, Ichetucknee Springs, a few miles from where my folks call home. Words cannot describe its beauty and wildness, with its towering cypress trees, covered with spanish moss like tinsel on a Christmas tree, that grace the banks of this slow-moving river, which begins with over 200 million gallons of water gushing toward the earth’s surface from “Blue Hole,” deep from within the earth’s core. The bounty of wildlife supported by this area is truly spectacular, and includes copious birds and fish life, and the occasional pod of manatee that ventures upstream into this 72 degree water to feed on the dense aquatic vegetation.
The Ichetucknee is a tributary to the Sante Fe, which eventually meanders into the Suwanee River, the famed body of water written about by Stephen C Foster, whose iconic lyrics penned in 1851 eventually became the state song, “The Swanee River” (a/k/a “Old Folks at Home”).
Way down upon the Suwannee River, Far, far away, There’s where my heart is turning ever, There’s where the old folks stay. All up and down the whole creation, Sadly I roam, Still longing for my childhood station, And for the old folks at home.
(Chorus) All the world is sad and dreary Everywhere I roam. O dear ones, how my heart grows weary, Far from the old folks at home.
Great story-telling through song and verse. But there is yet another story that this river now shares. The river once again teams with striped mullet fish, a catadromous species, which, opposite anadromous fish such as salmon, travel instead to the ocean to spawn and then return to freshwaters to live most of their life. Returning to Ichetucknee this year, I was overjoyed to observe the large schools of mullet, which only 20 years ago were eerily absent from these same waters. Years of gill-netting and over-harvesting pushed these species toward extirpation in many Florida coastal locales. In response, the people of Florida passed a constitutional amendment in 1994, essentially banning the use of most commercial gill nets.
It goes without saying that banning gill netting was a tough and unpopular decision with most of Florida’s fishing communities, many of whose fifth-generation inhabitants knew nothing else but fishing. It was a huge blow to fishing villages such as Cedar Keys, located along the Gulf Coast, which was made worse by the closure of the oyster fisheries due to waters contaminated by raw human sewage. “The net ban was devastating to this community,” according to Leslie Sturmer, “but the problems began before that. It was the closure of the oyster beds in 1990 that was the catalyst for what you see here today.” Sturmer, a fisheries biologist at the University of Florida, ought to know, as she has devoted most of her career helping this community rebound and reinvent itself. Like the Ichetucknee, Cedar Key too has special qualities and deep history of its own with a connection to John Muir.
Perched on a point of marshy “high ground” (elevation 10 feet) in southern Levy County just an hour west of Gainesville, Cedar Key (pop. 702) relishes its specialness. Nature — together with a series of astonishingly astute political decisions over the decades — has isolated this tiny coastal hamlet in a lush, unsullied oasis that has no peer on the Gulf perimeter.
Since Herbert Hoover signed a bill in 1929 creating the 762-acre Cedar Key National Wildlife Refuge, another 88,000 acres of state and federal acquisitions have permanently sealed off Cedar Key to the onslaught of most of the human excesses that have ruined the heart of wild Florida. In 1867, a young adventurer who would go on to design America’s national park system, John Muir, ended a 1,000-mile trek he began in Indianapolis at Cedar Key. If he returned today, Muir could still be entranced by the “many gems of palmy islets” that helped inspire him to dedicate his life to preserving America’s wild areas. (Frank Stephenson, 2013)
This special place, once on the verge of economic and social collapse, is now on the rebound. A very difficult decision that seemed to rip apart this community has given way to new hope and a way of life, thanks in large measure to the vision of one state senator, George Kirkpatrick, and a federal jobs retraining program aimed at helping displaced coastal fishermen whose livelihoods, ironically, were destroyed in order to save a fragile fishery and return balance to the unsustainable use of the ocean’s bounties. The program, known as Project Ocean, provided the funding and tools necessary to train fishermen on the ways and opportunities of aquaculture, or more specifically clam farming. Over the last 20 years, the program has been so successful, and the families of Cedar Key are generating so many clams for commercial markets, that the area is now dubbed “Clamelot.” And now the mullet of Clamelot, aided by a difficult and controversial decision, are teaming once again in the waters of the Ichetucknee.
On my way home to DC, I happened upon a great NPR piece on the travails and triumphs of Cedar Keys, titled “Forced to Put Its Nets Away, One Fla. Town Clams Up – Literally“. It’s a great story, told by Greg Allen, and well worth the five minutes.
In the context of environmental protection, whether protecting water quality or endangered species, or attempting to rebalance unsustainable human practices, making the right decisions often entails making wildly unpopular decisions that have real and lasting impacts on families and communities. So as we celebrate Earth Day today, and reflect upon the progress that we’ve made and the more that must follow, let’s also remember those families and communities who are often asked to make significant sacrifices in the name of a sustainable future.